It is easy to confuse classical conditioning and operant conditioning, which is why it is so necessary to have strong, clear, personal examples in your head of each. Here are a couple of examples of operant conditioning from my life:
I love running. I love running long distance. I run five days a week. A short run for me is 10 km, a moderate run, 15 km, and a long run,
Mr M finishing the Singapore Marathon in 2008
20+ km. Most people couldn’t make themselves run 30 or 40 kms even if their lives depended on it. Me? I’m out there every other weekend running 20 – 35 km. So what gives?
Operant conditioning. Every time I run a 10 – 20 km, I get several big rewards. First of all, I’ll start feeling the effects of endorphins — the body’s natural pain killers. Opiates are agonists for endorphins. So, you get the idea of how big of a reward it is. Second, I get a rush of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of love and other pleasures. I am proud of myself when I run distances and that helps produce dopamine. And third, people react so positively when you tell them about running 20 kms or 30 kms. Most people are at least somewhat awestruck and that is good for my ego.
So, there you have it. What keeps me pounding out the kilometers week in and week out? Operant conditioning — the rewards of running.
I can’t think of a better example.
Image via Wikipedia
One of things I love about teaching psychology is that the principles are all around us. This is especially true of classical conditioning, in fact, with just a little bit of effort we can recognize many of the reactions that have been conditioned into our own lives. These examples make great learning tools because they help us relate these concepts to real meaningful examples. Here are a couple from my own life:
1a) Large motorbikes known as hogs are becoming popular in Vietnam. They have a very distinct sound and look. The engines are deep and throaty and they are slung low to the ground. The rider sits back and reaches up to the handle bars. Every time I hear one, I am on guard because I associate them with bikers. Bikers are usually members of criminal gangs. Very dangerous.
1b) I have a very similar reaction to groups of motorbikes. Anytime I see a large group of bikes, I think,”Gang,” and am leery. It might not be right, but those are my associations. There are others.
2) When I go to the movie theater, I have to have pop corn. If we don’t buy pop corn, then I’m restless and grumpy throughout the movie and a little peevish after it is over. So, we always get pop corn at the movies.
3) Oh wow! This just happened to me. I was in the hall closet picking up a bag off of a box. The bag rubbed along the box making a low throaty sound, and I had a startle response: I jumped a slight amount and felt some adrenaline enter my blood. I realized I had thought I heard a dog growling! A dog in the middle of my house! There isn’t a dog for a 100 meters and several walls to me. Why else would I react as if a dog were there growling at me if not from classical conditioning?
You can see the association between a neutral stimulus and the unconditioned response in each. Can you name them?